We are All Made of Stars & London Cru Chancery Lane Chardonnay

we are all made of stars coverWe are All Made of Stars – Rowan Coleman. New York: Ballantine Books, 2015.

Can a novel set in a hospice be joyful? Can a book about death-bed letters be uplifting? It can when crafted by the capable hands of Rowan Coleman, whose writing style is often compared to Jojo Moyes (Me Before You). During seven days in a London neighborhood, the lives of seven characters evolve from being stranger to companions, friends, and love interest.

Stella, the central character, is a night nurse at the Hospice of St. Francice. She chooses this shift so that she and her husband, Vincent, can co-habit as he struggles with PTSD and alcoholism after losing not only a leg and but also a close friend in Afghanistan. She occupies the long night hours writing letters for dying patients. It is one such letter that gives the book its title: “I am the air, the moon, the stars,” a patient writes to his beloved. “Everything made becomes part of the universe, and everything that is part of the universe becomes us. For we are all made of stars.” Whether the letter’s intent is to apologize, to confess, to advise, or to reassure, Stella faithfully pens them, promising not to mail them until after each patient passes on.

It’s a promise she keeps until she meets Grace and hears her dark secret – a secret she feels Grace should share while she is still alive.

Across the hall from Grace is Hope, a twenty-year-old with cystic fibrosis who is recuperating at the hospice from a dangerous infection. A college dropout, book cover designer, and writer of songs, she is resigned to living her life with her mum and dad, safe from the outside world. Her best friend, Ben, sees it differently, encouraging her to take a chance and embrace life. “When you feel afraid,” he advises her, “go outside at night and look up, because when you do that, and you think of all those other stars out there, nothing on this earth is frightening anymore. Nothing.”

Down the street from Stella’s home lives Hugh – a reclusive historian whose daily routine is interrupted by a new next door neighbor, Sarah. A struggling single mom to a ten year old son, she encourages Hugh to live in the now: “It’s not easy, being in this world. Picking yourself up, getting yourself together, time after time, only for some bastard to whack you back down. But what else can you do, right?”

These seven characters are interconnected by a cat. At the hospice, where he seems to know exactly who needs comforting, his name is Shadow. When he is eating bacon at Hugh’s house, he’s known as Jake. And when he snuggles next to Sarah’s son, he answers to Ninja. In some ways, he is the living embodiment of the book’s theme – the connections between people and the universe that surrounds them. Cats live in the now – a lesson that all the characters learn. “This is what matters,” Hugh realizes. “This moment, this present, this life, this death.”

The book ends, appropriately, with a letter written from Stella to Vincent addressing, among other things, the importance of hand-written letters. “On the page,” she writes, “words become immortal, beautiful, personal, heartfelt, and special. A letter is a memory that will never be lost, will never fade or be forgotten.”

 

My Wine Recommendation

London CruA short trip across town would take these characters to London Cru – a winery based in a former gin distillery in South London. Using grapes sourced from Germany and the south of France, they produce cool-climate wines that have won numerous awards. For a versatile bottle that would please everyone, choose their 2017 Chancery Lane Chardonnay. With a taste more like Chablis than an oaky Napa Chardonnay, the wine is light and fresh with flavors of apples and pears. It pairs well with game, oysters, or even a fresh English garden salad. $20

My Brilliant Friend & Lacryma Christi del Vesuvio Rosso DOC

my brillant friendMy Brilliant Friend – Elena Ferrante. New York: Europa, 2012.

Childhood memories are often dominated by someone like Lila – the one who excels in every subject, the one who throws rocks at bullies, the one who cares nothing about what others think of her including her teachers, the one who takes her best friend’s hand and leads her on big adventures. On the outskirts of Naples, Italy following the Second World War, a brazen friend like Lila can help a timid girl navigate the domestic complexities of her working-class neighborhood and dream about a life beyond the piazza.

Elena Ferrante (the name is a pseudonym of the unknown author) draws perhaps from her (or his) own experiences growing up in post-war Italy to pen the four novels that follow the coming-of-age lives of the narrator, mild-mannered Elena Greco, and her courageous best friend, Lila Cerullo. My Brilliant Friend is the first in the “Neapolitan Quartet” and vividly captures the personality of a community through the antics of children; much like Harper Lee did in To Kill a Mockingbird. From the neighborhood ogre Don Achille, whose presence looms over the novel, to the mad widow, Melina Cappuccio, to the handsome yet cruel sons of the neighborhood bar and pastry shop, Marcello and Michele Solara, Ferrante draws the reader into the tapestry of a story where family poverty and plenty live side by side.

“Our world was full of words that killed,” Elena ruminates. “Croup, tetanus, typhus, gas, war, lathe, rubble, work, bombardment, bomb, tuberculosis, infection. With these words and those years I bring back the many fears that accompanied me all my life.”

The central struggles in the novel center around two factors that determine the girls’ futures – education and money. While Elena and Lila begin as equals as they play with their dolls and enter first grade, it is soon evident that as the daughter of a city hall porter, Elena has more advantages than Lila, whose father is a lowly shoemaker. Elena’s parents agree to pay for a tutor so that she can excel on the entrance exam for middle school, while Lila’s parents refuse the expenditure, feeling that it is time for her to work in the family store. In the years to follow, Elena struggles with her studies and worries about puberty, while Lila embraces shoe design and the growing advances of young men, especially handsome Marcello Solara and the upwardly-mobile Stefano Carraci. Struggle seems bred into the girls since they see so much of it around them. “We grew up with the duty to make it difficult for others before they make it difficult for us,” Elena explains.

Adding to their struggles is their gender. As was often the case for females in the 1950’s, both girls gradually realize how dependent their lives are on the fortunes and misfortunes of men, especially if they wish to escape the confines of their neighborhood. Escape is, indeed, a key theme to the story. Chapter One begins with the adult Elena learning that her old friend Lila has disappeared from her home in Naples – a feat that the young Lila often expressed: “She wanted to vanish; she wanted every one of her cells to disappear.” The final chapter of the story shows the beginning steps Lila is willing to take on her transformation journey.

Elena’s telling the story of their friendship from its inception is her way of recreating what has long since disappeared through the years – two girls who once were inseparable.

My Wine Recommendation

lacryma christiLegend says that when Lucifer was expelled from heaven, he managed to steal a strip of it and bring it with him to earth, so forming the Gulf of Naples. Pained by the loss, Christ began to cry, shedding tears upon Mount Vesuvius. When these sweet tears blossomed the grape vines on the mountainside, they created a heavenly taste: Lacryma Christi. In actuality, the wine that carries the name for Christ’s tears, Lacryma Christi del Vesuvio Rosso DOC, comes from the Sannino winery, founded in the early 1900s on the fertile ground of the Vesuvius near the city of Herculaneum. Their 2016 vintage has an intense ruby-red color with aromas of cherries , raspberries, and black pepper. Naturally, it pairs well with spaghetti and meatballs, Bolognese sause, and pizza Margherita. $17.

Book Pairing: The Diver’s Clothes Lie Empty & Ouled Thaleb Shrah

Diver's ClothesThe Diver’s Clothes Lie Empty – Vendela Vida. New York: Harper Collins, 2015.

You may know the feeling: You arrive in a foreign country after a long, uncomfortable flight. As you accept the complementary drink the flight attendant pours, you fantasize about the man seated across from you. Perhaps you will meet him for dinner one evening and compare notes over a refreshing drink in Rick’s Bar.

The fantasy disappears as you leave the plane, still half asleep from the sleeping table you swallowed with your second glass of wine. As you start the long walk to baggage claim, you feel jetlagged, disoriented, perhaps wonder what made this trip so appealing two months ago when you booked it. You look with judging eyes on a woman who seems unable to stop the shrieks of her child. All you want is deep sleep.

You arrive at your hotel, tip your driver in American dollars, and present your passport and a credit card to the front desk. You return these items to your carry-on. Your body aches for a cold drink, a warm shower and a comfortable bed. But when you reach down to pick up your carry-on, you realize the worse has happened: Your bag is gone – the bag containing your passport, your money, your phone, your camera and your computer. In short everything that contains your identity is now missing. You don’t even have the local currency to make a phone call.

What do you do?

This is the dilemma that begins The Diver’s Clothes Lie Empty, a what-if novel that traces the actions of an unnamed narrator who arrives in Casablanca and finds that in order to survive, she must reinvent herself. Written in second person (you), Vida takes the reader moment by moment through the nerve-wracking, suspense-laden thoughts and actions of the narrator. Like most travelers, the narrator first tries to go through proper channels (i.e. the police) to recover her stolen property. But when the chief of police declares the crime solved and, “like a blackjack dealer giving you his last card”, thrusts a bag with a passport of another woman into her arms, she realizes that “extreme circumstances require radical change.”

The narrator assumes this new identity and begins a Kafkaesque lifestyle of altered identities, first as the woman in the passport whose credit card affords her a much-needed hotel upgrade, then as a stand-in for a “famous American actress” who is filming on location in Casablanca, and later as a reporter following a political candidate deeper into Morocco. With each twist of the plot, the narrator reveals what has driven her from her home in Florida and made her so willing to embrace a new identity.

It is a deep secret, a sadness that propels her further and further into the harsh, unforgiven Moroccan landscape. And in her head are the constant cries of a baby and the deceptive eyes of her sister.

The book’s title comes from a Rumi poem about feeling both present and absent in life, being in the ocean while at the same time dressed in the clothes on the shore, feeling hunted and a hunter. The theme is underscored by the landscape – the blinding sunlight, the exotic scents, the crowded shops, the labyrinth streets, the staggering heat – producing a story that is both entertaining and disturbing.

My Wine Recommendation

oulet_thaleb_syrah_mv_750Such an exotic book requires an equally exotic wine like the 2012 Ouled Thaleb Shrah from Morocco. This bright red has flavors of cherry and pomegranate with a luscious finish of orange zest. Wine experts give it high points for its balance of smoky, spicy and fruity notes. $16.

 

Book Pairing: The Book of Strange New Things & Chateau Ste. Michelle Cabernet Sauvignon

strange new thingsThe Book of Strange New Things – Michael Faber. New York: Penguin Random House, 2015.

When Peter meets Beatrice, it seems a match made in heaven. She is a nurse, trained to heal broken bodies; he is an addict with not only a broken body but also a broken spirit. Like Dante’s Beatrice, she heals him, falls in love with him and converts him to Christianity; he gets sober and with her help starts a church in a low-income neighborhood in London.

Several years later they have a chance of a lifetime – to serve as missionaries to a settlement named Oasis on a remote planet being colonized by USIC, an American-based corporation. He gets selected for the mission; she does not. He leaves for a six-month adventure spreading the word of Christ to the native inhabitants; she is charged with keeping the home fires burning while the world around her falls apart. Soon both of them experience the ultimate test of their love and faith.

Yes, Michael Faber’s most recent novel The Book of Strange New Things is science fiction, but like many writers of this genre, his focus is less on the science behind colonizing another galaxy than using a scientific premise to examine the effects that separation and alienation can have on relationships and core beliefs.

He sets the novel in the near future with references to popular magazines and news events and spends little time on explaining how humans arrived on Oasis (it’s simply called “the jump”). By eliminating a lot of the sci-fi elements from the story, the reader is better able to identify with the main characters as they struggle to stay connected to one another and to the God they both love.

At first Peter is the one who has the harder task. Not only must he adjust to a different planet where daylight and darkness last for hundreds of hours, water tastes like melons and the humid atmosphere makes you move like an underwater creature, he shares nothing in common with the other USIC employees. They want nothing from him or his religion and treat him as an amusing outsider. In contrast, the natives treat him like the second coming. To Peter’s surprise, the majority of them have already been converted by a previous minister and refer to themselves as Jesus Lover One, Jesus Lover Fifty-two, Jesus Lover Seventy-eight, etc. They simply want someone to teach them more about what they call the Technique of Jesus, especially the stories where Jesus heals the sick.

So like the Biblical Peter, he throws his energies into building them a church with a steeple and translating Biblical passages into language they can understand. He dresses like them, sleeps with them and works in the fields with them. In fact, the more time he spends with them, the more alienated he becomes from the people at basecamp and life back on earth. As he tells his flock, “I never went to Bible School. I went to the University of Hard Drinking and Drug Abuse. Got my degree in Toilet Bowl Interior Decoration.” Over time he becomes disoriented, emaciated, and disconnected. Like the addict he was before, his addiction now is to them and his Bible, what the natives refer to as The Book of Strange New Things.

Peter’s only contact with earth is through emails exchanged with Beatrice whose letters are filled with her struggles in a world coming apart – corporate meltdowns, infrastructure collapse, tsunamis, earthquakes, rioting, destruction, total chaos. She also is pregnant and is fearful of bringing a child into such a world. Peter reads about her anguish, responds with encouraging Biblical passages, reassures her of his love, feels badly about the demise of society, but frankly would prefer that she not include such matters in her correspondences as they distract him from his mission.

“Nothing shall hurt you, said Luke. When thou walkest through the fire, thou shalt not be burned, said Isaiah. The Lord healeth all thy diseases, said the Psalms,” he writes to her. He might as well have told her to ‘keep on truckin’ as Beatrice reaches a breaking point. “Horrible, ghastly things in the news,” she writes. “I can’t bear to read, can’t bear to look.” She advises him to stay on Oasis forever because she has finally accepted that there is no God, at least not in her world.

In the end, Peter has a choice to make: to stay in a place of spiritual contentment or return to a world in chaos where the one person he loves the most desperately needs his help. In this way, he is a fictional Everyman whose faith is tested as all those about him question its very purpose. Faber’s writing pulls the reader into both characters’ dilemma. “Where is God in all this?” they ask themselves and one another. Where, indeed, we echo.

My Wine Recommendation

Chateau-Ste-Michelle-2013-Indian-Wells-Cabernet-SauvignonAlthough Peter is a recovering alcoholic, a good communion wine is ideal for this novel. With its low alcohol percentage and deep crimson color, I recommend Chateau Ste. Michelle 2013 Indian Wells Cabernet Sauvignon. It has a dark fruit aroma and flavor and pairs nicely with duck, lamb, veal, stuffed peppers and dark chocolate – just the sorts of foods you would crave if you were living in outer space. $20.

 

Book Pairing: The Art of Hearing Heartbeats & Aythaya White

Art of Hearing HeartbeatsThe Art of Hearing Heartbeats – Jan-Phillip Sendker (Originally published in German as Das Herzenhoren)
New York: Other Press, 2002.

“Do you believe in love?” the old man asks. “Can words sprout wings? Can they glide like butterflies through the air? Can they captivate us, carry us off into another world? Can they open the last secret chambers of our soul?”

Jan-Phillip Sendker does just that in The Art of Hearing Heartbeats. Part contemporary mystery, part ancient fairy tale, the story weaves together two time periods, two cultures, and two lives lived by the same man – Tin Win, a Wall Street attorney who on the morning of his daughter’s college graduation disappears. “I love you, little one,” he tells her that morning. “Never forget that.” Later that day he flies from New York to Los Angeles, from Los Angeles to Hong Kong, and from Hong Kong to Thailand where his passport is discovered in a ditch.

Four years later, his daughter Julia attempts to solve the mystery of why her father left her and why he never spoke of his boyhood in Burma or Mi Mi, his “beloved.” Julie knows of Mi Mi from a love letter she finds written but never mailed by her father. The letter states how Mi Mi has been with him for each of the five thousand eight hundred and sixty-four days since he last heard the beating of her heart. “When the time comes,” he wrote, “I will return.”

U Ba, the old man now seated across from Julia in a Burmese teahouse, promises to answer her questions about her father and his Mi Mi if only she will listen to his tale, and what a tale it is for the young Tin Win that U Ba describes is nothing like the successful man-about-town that Julia knew. This Tin Win is the cursed orphan of peasants who is cared for by a loving, sympathetic neighbor. As a young man he studies with Buddhist monks where one day he meets Mi Mi. Each is physically challenged and as their friendship grows, so does their love – a  love that echoes a fairy tale that Tin Win regularly told Julia as a child – the Tale of the Prince, the Princess, and the Crocodile.

The beauty of the novel is the way Sendker weaves Eastern spirituality with the lush yet impoverished world of Burma, a place that dramatically contrasts with the hurried pace of upscale New York. It’s as if the two exist in parallel worlds – in New York, U Ba observes, people “love to be dazzled” and rely “too heavily on eyes and neglect other senses.” In Burma, people “learn to divine the true nature of things, their substance, and the eyes are rather a hindrance than a help.” Sendker draws together these two worlds and their contrasting priorities to reconcile how a father could leave a child, and in so doing, allow the child to see that there is more to life than is visible.

As Julia undergoes her quest, the reader travels with her not only into an unfamiliar place but also into the soul of the characters, especially the soul of her father who understands the meaning of pure love. In Burma he “possessed all the happiness a person could find. He loved and was loved. Unconditionally.”

My Wine Recommendation

Aythaya WhiteThe Art of Hearing Heartbeats is a joyous book, a fairy tale for adults that brings a sense of happiness that will stay with you for a long time. In addition to the box of tissues you may need as you read, my wine recommendation is Aythaya White from the Myanmar (Burma) Estate.  A lush wine made of 80% Sauvignon Blanc and 20%Chenin Blanc, it has contrasting yet complementary aromas of gooseberries, grapefruit and green apple. Like the story, it delivers a fresh and pleasant after-taste. ($9 when ordered from the estate at http://www.myanmar-vineyard.com.)

 

Book Pairing: Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand & Chateau de Bel-Air

Major PettigrewMajor Pettigrew’s Last Stand by Helen Simonson. New York: Random House, 2010.

It began with the Churchills – a pair of rifles given to the Major’s father by the Maharishi himself after the Colonel saved the spiritual leader’s wife from a riot during the bloody Indian Partition of 1947. The Major was a mere boy then when his family lived in what is now Pakistan, but the honor associated with these fine guns is still a point of pride for the Major. He has long dreamed of walking the fields with the local aristocracy, the Churchills broken across his arm and ready for the hunt.

On the Colonel’s death bed, the Major and his brother Bernie were each given a Churchill with the understanding that the pair would be reunited upon their deaths and passed on to Roger, the Major’s son and sole heir to the family name. The Major takes such pride in the proper execution of family matters that he often opens his small iron strongbox, spreads out the thick pages of his will and reads over the list of assets and distribution. “It reads like a list of achievements.”

So it is to be expected that on the day of Bernie’s death, a moment that pains the Major with great grief, his thoughts naturally go to the reunion of these guns. They must be cared for – their stocks polished to a sheen, their barrels oiled, their triggers at ready. But there’s a problem – Bernie has left his estate to his wife Marjorie without any mention of the father’s directive, and all she and her daughter – and Roger, too, for that matter – can think of is the money the guns will fetch, especially if sold to an American businessman who is buying his way into the English gentry.

But the Churchills are not the only concern disrupting the Major’s carefully manicured life. He finds himself drawn to the elegant Mrs. Ali – the Pakistani shopkeeper at the local convenience store where he buys his tea and a widow like himself. They share a love of books, especially Kipling, and a familial connection to Pakistan. But therein lays the rub: the locals don’t approve of immigrants (Mrs. Ali was born in Sussex, but never mind), and even the Major wonders whether his growing attraction to her is proper. “They pretend to be English. Some of them were even born here. But under the surface were all these barbaric notions and allegiances to foreign customs.”

Helen Simonson’s witty and touching story blends generational, cultural, class and gender conflicts into a delightful read, especially when these elements collide at the annual golf club costume party.  Wanting to trump last year’s successful ‘Last Days of Pompeii’, the planning committee, composed of every gossip and old bitty in the neighborhood, chooses to blend Bollywood with a reenactment of the Colonel’s famous heroic efforts, complete with the gift of the Churchills.

As might be expected when cultural differences are mixed with great quantities of alcohol, the evening ends in disaster, and Major Pettigrew confronts a dilemma: Should he follow his heart and pursue Mrs. Ali, who was humiliated by the offensive pageantry and struggles with her own family traditions, or accept that the world is, indeed, made up of us and them?

For anyone who has lived in a small community where one’s every action is scrutinized by others, Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand will seem familiar territory. Chocked full of characters – from the twittering next-door neighbor to the crass American to the obnoxious son – the novel has an enjoyable blend of humor, hubris and a happy ending.

My Wine Recommendation

Chateau de Bel-airMajor Pettigrew is a traditionalist, so when he has wine with dinner, it must be a proper claret. To the British, that means a French Burgundy. My recommendation for the Major and Mrs. Ali is the 2015 Chateau de Bel-Air, Lalande-de-Pomerol. It has a seductive floral nose with violets and jasmine and tastes of red fruits and sweet spices. $25